by Will Cafferky
A Note To The Reader
It’s been almost three years now since PearShaped began. In that time, a potent cocktail of enthusiasm on my part, and nepotism on the part of my mates – the founders – presented me with a number of unbelievable opportunities I felt entirely unqualified to experience. Of all of those, this column has been by far the most indulgently satisfying. To talk about the music you love is one thing, but to be provided with a consistent platform on which to do so is both humbling and gratifying in equal measure. I owe it to the editors – past and present – as well as the numerous talented writers across the society for inspiring, promoting, and critiquing my efforts throughout all 14 of my instalments for this column. Most importantly, I owe a debt to you, the reader. Without you, I would be a man shouting his musical opinions into the void, and there are more than enough people doing that on the ole’ internet these days. It’s been a pleasure, and I can’t wait to read what my successor has in stall for you.
Now, for Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues.
I think I can actually remember the first time I heard Fleet Foxes. I mainly remember because it wasn’t actually them. It was freshers’ week 2012, and I was walking down Exeter High Street when I clocked an a cappella group performing White Winter Hymnal, the headline track from Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut. I didn’t know that was what it was at the time, of course. But it was nice, so I asked. I like to think it was snowing. It wasn’t, but that’s nevertheless how I choose to remember it.
I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s a relationship between weather and music – after all, where would we be without the annual quest for the ‘sound of the summer’. When it’s snowing though, imaginary or otherwise, a track like that has a somewhat appropriate way of sticking in your head. It’s an atmospheric, choral folk piece, which trundles along with enchantingly deliberate echoed harmonies; innocuous in its imagery, and soothing in its melody.
It’s the same story across the rest of that album. It never threatens to swell or expand, to bubble over or burst, to surprise or challenge. Rather it trickles along with consistent tranquillity – always pleasing, never upsetting. It’s really quite boring. That’s not to say I don’t like it, there’s a place for the pleasant and innocence in music. There’s a time for peace and comfort. Trust me, I can certainly appreciate the value of escapism.
And yet, especially since leaving university, I’ve come to appreciate reality a bit more. You’ll have to excuse my cynicism, but life isn’t always pleasant or innocent. It certainly isn’t always peaceful and comfortable. And sometimes what we want from music, from any kind of art medium really, is something real. Something flawed and frustrated. Something relatable.
It’s at this juncture that we arrive at Helplessness Blues.
Fleet Foxes’ debut was a huge hit, and deservingly so. The critics lauded its poetry, its consistency, and its well-grounded folk credentials. A successful tour followed, as did a new member; Joshua Tillman, better known on the pop circuit by his moniker Father John Misty, joined the band as a drummer, in a move that provided a springboard for his now flourishing solo career.
With the momentum from the tour and the reshuffle came the inevitable desire to record new stuff, and for frontman Robin Pecknald, new was the operative word. With his next record, he sought to eschew the cleanliness of his debut, both in terms of sound and theme. During recording, he embraced mistakes and shied away from flawless vocals, and his writing, he looked to confront darker notions of uncertainty and exasperation.
Make no mistake; the musicality of Helplessness Blues remains stunning. The harmonies endure, the riffs and strings enchant, and the vocals swoop and soar. But there’s an undoubted sense that, taken as a whole, the record feels much less refined, less polished, and less processed. It’s a feature most apparent on the album’s eponymous track. The riff is punchy, and the vocals almost straining to maintain synchronicity with the guitar – a feature even more apparent in live renditions.
But it’s lyrically where Helplessness Blues truly stands independent from its predecessor. Throughout the record, Pecknald suffers a succession of identity crises, grappling with the kind of frustrations inspired by the realities of seeking answers in your late 20s. Such themes are most pertinent in album opener Montezuma, an astounding piece of poetry in which Pecknald wrestles with, what he perceives to be, his tendency toward to self-interest, and a failure to understand his true purpose in life. It’s an idea that he returns to midway through the album during the aforementioned track Helplessness Blues, which reads initially like a sort of socialist love letter. In actual fact, it’s a more nuanced lamentation of the pressures of a society that fetishizes individuality, to the point that establishing an identity becomes an unbearable burden. These ideas are intricately weaved throughout each of the album’s twelve tracks, to develop a contiguous piece that occupies a challenging thematic and messy thematic space entirely divorced from the tranquillity of their debut.
I guess the evolution of Fleet Foxes’ sound and ideas explains why I gravitated toward this album for my final entry to this column. I’m 22 – I’m far too young to claim I know much about the real world. But it’s funny how much can change in four years, and how your perceptions change with it. For me, these two albums almost serve as emotional bookends to my time at university, milestones for my emotional graduation. On the one hand, you have something fresh and idyllic, but ultimately naïve – divorced from reality. On the other you have something all the more gritty and uncertain.
To that end, as cringeworthy as it may seem, the transition of Fleet Foxes from their debut album to Helplessness Blues serves as a sort of parable. Whilst there’s certainly beauty to be found in the snow white perfection of a flawless melody, there’s something all the more satisfying, and perhaps even more beautiful, about the full – sometimes messy – spectrum of human emotion.